RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Jane Gay and grandson Eric James Gay, 18 months, look at a display case holding antique toy cars and buggies at the Mission Houses Museum.
Two Honolulu galleries show that the appreciation of toys is a universal joy -- and one not exclusive to children
Once upon a time, visions of sugar plums danced in the heads of excited children on Christmas Eve. These days, kids can't even tell you what a sugar plum is. Nor can most grown-ups -- and we say "grown-ups" instead of "adults" because they are different creatures of the same species. One puts away childish things, the other prizes the free romp of an unfettered imagination. Childlike is not the same as childish.
'Playthings: Toys & Games'
On exhibit: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays through April 5, 2008, and open Dec. 15 and 16 during Mission Houses' "candlelight" evenings
Place: Mission Houses Museum
Call: 531-0481, ext. 714
'Tinkered & Toyed 2007'
On exhibit: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays through Dec. 21
Place: Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i
Call: 945-7633 or email@example.com
Of course, we're talking toys, and Christmas is the season when toys rule. Once a rare childhood treat, they flood America these days, from gimcrack giveaways in fast-food meals to high-priced electronic wonders. You really can't argue that stuff like cool cars and hi-def TVs and other gotta-haves aren't the adult equivalent of a childhood obsession with toys, because no one will disagree with you.
As Robert Louis Stevenson quatrained: "When I am grown to man's estate / I shall be very proud and great. / And tell the other girls and boys / Not to meddle with my toys!"
Or, in bumper-sticker philosophy: He who dies with the most toys wins.
Toys ARE us, and we is toys.
Although the generic toy stores might have some empty shelves this year thanks to safety recalls, there are a couple of exhibits in town that remind us that toys remain the engines of imagination. There's "Tinkered & Toyed 2007" at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai'i, in which local artists create whimsical Christmas gifts, and "Playthings: Toys & Games" at the Mission Houses Museum, a look back at beloved playthings of yesteryear.
Mission Houses director David de la Torre had been toying with the idea for some time, says collector Rick Ralston. "When David was at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, he put together a big toy show and used many of the toys in my collection. When it came up again at the Mission Houses, he called."
Ralston, BTW, is no weekend fanboy of toys. He's big time. As the guy who invented the mass-marketed, printed T-shirt, Ralston made a bazillion dollars with Crazy Shirts, and with the pocket change, began collecting antique toys.
"I had excess money, and used it to buy toys!" he laughs. "In my neighborhood, as a kid, Santa didn't have a large budget. Guess I'm making up for my 'deprived' childhood! Boys' toys, mostly. Vehicles like cars and boats and trains and airplanes -- anything from about 1870 to pre-World War II, primarily metal like cast iron. I keep them in a humidity-free environment."
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
A display case holding antique toy cars and buggies at the Mission Houses Museum.
EVEN THOUGH Ralston's pretty much out of the T-shirt business and is focusing on his antiques shop, he "can't shake the habit," he says. "I wonder if there's a Betty Ford center for toy collectors."
He did trim his collection by selling off duplicates and finding good homes for the more expensive items. For the past decade he's become an eBay addict, buying and selling toys online.
"EBay is a great source -- it's awfully easy to sit in your office and browse," says Ralston, who also attends antique toy expos on the mainland. "Almost everybody collects something, and there's certainly a psychology to it. For me, it's the memories of fun with toys as a child, and as an adult, it's the excitement of finding something you're searching for."
With the hidden agenda of "mining the Mission Houses collection for exhibits," De la Torre explains that the "social and cultural history of toys is so multilayered, a reflection of the period. The missionary toys date back to the 1820s, a microcosm of the 19th century, and it's not only what they brought with them but what they encountered when they arrived."
Curator Elizabeth Nosek says the missionary toys evolved after encountering Hawaiian toys and toys of other cultures. "It's also fascinating that there are certain toys that are the same in all cultures, but evolved separately, like kites, or cat's cradle, or cup-and-ball-type games. While Jane Austin was playing cup-and-ball in regency England, Hawaiian children were playing with a similar toy of woven plants."
The enjoyment of toys "is a universal perspective," de la Torre adds. "There is evidence throughout all cultures and eras of adults making toys for children, and children aspiring to be adults and learning to do so with toys. The toys tell us what was important during those times, and tells us history repeats itself."
OVER IN the Community Gallery at the Japanese Cultural Center, gallery director Christy Mari Takamune challenged a network of local artists to invent holiday-themed toys and gifts. Although "Tinkered & Toyed 2007" is a reprise of a similar challenge in 2004, this year Takamune set a size and price limit to keep it manageable.
"Not that artists read the fine print!" she says with a smile. "But almost everything was below the upper limit of $300."
The items are selling well, and there's still a good selection, Takamune says.
"There are a lot of animals! That's funny. I guess that comes naturally, something more toylike, whether it's ceramic or metal or a painting or glass art. Or photography. It's a mixture of different concepts and approaches, and that was the idea.
"We like having group art shows, and when you give them an end goal, the artists have something specific to think about. We're thinking about some other themes ... but we don't want to frustrate anyone. It's kind of like giving a homework assignment!"
Homework? During the holiday season? No way. This is the time for play.